Fall/Winter 2003

Totality: The Color of Eclipse

In the uncanny shadow of the moon

Anne Carson

Solar eclipse, 26 February 1998. Photo Fred Espianak.

I know how the school of Yin and Yang explains it:
“When the sun devours the moon, moonlight is quenched.
When the moon covers the sun, sunlight fails.”
But this theory does not convince me.
Better what Lao-tzu said, who taught Confucius:
“The five colors blind men’s eyes.”
—Lu T’ung, “Eclipse,” (9th century AD)[1]

You might think a total eclipse of the sun would have no color. The word eclipse comes from ancient Greek ekleipsis, “a forsaking, quitting, abandonment.” The sun quits us, we are forsaken by light. Yet people who experience total eclipse are moved to such strong descriptions of its vacancy and void that this itself begins to take on color. What after all is a color? Something not no color. Can you make a double negative of light? Would that be like waking from a dream in the wrong direction and finding yourself on the back side of your own mind? There is a moment of reversal within totality. “Reverses Nature,” Emily Dickinson mutters.[2] As the moon’s shadow passes over you—like a rush of gloom, a tornado, a cannonball, a loping god, the heeling over of a boat, a slug of anaesthetic up your arm (these comparisons occur)—you will see, through your spectroscope or bit of smoked glass, some of the spectral lines grow brighter, then a flash and the lines reverse—to a different spectrum with some lines removed and others brightened. You are now inside the moon’s shadow, which is a hundred miles wide and travels at two thousand miles an hour. The sensation is stupendous. It seems to declare a contest with everything you have experienced of light and color hitherto. Virginia Woolf, in her essay “The Sun and the Fish” (which records celestial events on 29 June 1930 at Bardon Fell above Richmond)[3] reads the contest as a race:

The sun had to race through the clouds and to reach the goal, which was a thin transparency to the right, before the sacred seconds were up.

The race ends in defeat and shows the colors of defeat:

And as the fatal seconds passed, and we realized the sun was being defeated, had now, indeed, lost the race, all the color began to go from the moor. The blue turned to purple; the white became livid as at the approach of a violent but windless storm. Pink faces went green, and it became colder than ever. This was the defeat of the sun.

Hard to know how to go on, after the reversal of color and defeat of the sun. “This was the end. The flesh and blood of the world was dead,” she says. Other observers of eclipse mention at this instant a feeling of wrongness. Emily Dickinson, briefly: “Jehovah’s Watch—is wrong![4] Annie Dillard, in more detail:

The sun was going and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum.... This color has never been seen on earth.... I was standing in it, by some mistake.[5]

Wrongness has its own color and it is not like anything else. Not even like another eclipse, according to Annie Dillard:

I had seen a partial eclipse in 1970. A partial eclipse is very interesting. It bears almost no relation to a total eclipse. Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him....[6]

Note the analogy. Drastic analogies abound in the literature of totality; also typical, at this blasted moment, to turn to thoughts of kissing and marrying. Many mythological explanations of eclipse involve copulation or the hope of it. For example, old Germanic legend tells how the (male) moon was married to the (female) sun but could not satisfy her fiery passion; he just wanted to go to sleep. They made a bet: whoever woke first in the morning would rule the day. The sun, still turbulent at 3 am, won the bet but vowed she would not sleep with the moon again. Both of them soon regretted their parting and began to edge toward one another (= eclipse). No sooner do they meet than they fall to quarrelling and go separate ways, the sun blood-red with anger. Historians also like to associate totality with marriage, as in Herodotus’s famous account of the eclipse of 585 BC, which took place in the midst of a battle between the Lydians and the Medes. Both armies were so unnerved by the solar situation, they broke off fighting and sealed a truce by arranging nuptials between the daughter of one king and the son of the other.[7] Poets too see a connection between total eclipse and conjugal arrangements. The earliest use of totality as a poetic trope in the Greek lyric tradition is a 7th-century-BC poem by Archilochos, now extant only in fragments, in which a father complains of his daughter’s marriage plans. Eclipse is used as an analogy for her crazy behavior:

Nothing in the world is astonishing, unbelievable or forsworn anymore / now that Zeus has made night out of noon / and hidden away the blazing light of the sun: / wet fear comes upon men.[8]

An eclipse that was total at Thebes (probably in 478 or 463 BC) and witnessed by the ancient poet Pindar figures in his 9th Paean. His description of “a rushing road of darkness rolled out in place of day” is oddly but dramatically coupled with praise of the Theban nymph Melia, who “mingled with the god Apollo in her ambrosial bed.”[9] But by far the oddest couple in eclipse literature is the one conjoined by Virginia Woolf in “The Sun and the Fish.” This essay indeed is riddled (in several senses) with sex. A bit of cognitive speculation begins it:

For a sight will only survive in the queer pool in which we deposit our memories if it has the good luck to ally itself with some other emotion by which it is preserved. Sights marry incongruously, morganatically, (like the Queen and the Camel), and so keep each other alive.... Sights fade and perish and disappear because they failed to find the right mate.

Then follows a strong and scary description of total eclipse veering off all at once, after totality, to a snapshot of two lizards mating on the path of the Zoological Garden:

One lizard is mounted immobile on the back of another, with only the twinkle of a gold eyelid or the suction of a green flank to show that they are the living flesh, and not made of bronze. All human passion seems furtive and feverish beside this still rapture.

But she is not content with the rapture of lizards. This immortal moment is immediately married to a third image: that of fish swimming in the tanks of the London Aquarium. I’m not sure why the fish are added to the lizards. Wouldn’t the mental images of eclipse and lizards have made her point and “kept each other alive?” She deliberately complicates this neat union with a third angle of vision. I wonder if third angles were in her mind that day, as she wandered over Bardon Fell in the company of both her husband Leonard and her lover, Vita Sackville West. To judge from the observations in her diary (30 June) she was watching Vita all the day, watching Vita with her husband Harold (whom Virginia Woolf elsewhere in her diary describes as “a spontaneous childlike man...has a mind that bounces when he drops it”), watching how marriage was going with Vita:

In our carriage was Vita & Harold, Quentin, Leonard and I. That is Hatfield, I said. I was smoking a cigar.... there was one star, over Alexandra Park. Look Vita, that’s Alexandra Park, said Harold. The N[icolson]s got sleepy; Harold curled up with his head on Vita’s knee. She looked like Sappho by Leighton, asleep; so we plunged through the midlands, made a very long stay at York. Then at 3 we got out our sandwiches, & I came in from the wc to find Harold being rubbed clean of cream.... Then we had another doze, or the N.’s did....[10]

It was 1927. Marriage was going well with the Sapphic Vita, and with the virginal Virginia. Besides that, they were enjoying their affair, indeed looking forward to spending the weekend after the eclipse together at Long Barn (Vita’s ancestral estate). Still, totality is a phenomenon that can flip one’s ratios inside out. I wonder if they paused to look at each other, these mated and unmated people, on the exposed plane of an ordinary moment of that curious, heavy, historic, wrong day. Sudden feeling of oldness. Black upland wind. Bring a coat, they had been told, and a piece of smoked glass. It will get cold. It will hurt your eyes. Totality is lightless, and should be colorless, yet may intensify certain questions that hang at the back of the mind. What is a spouse, after all? Will this one stay, can this one keep me alive?

  1. I am grateful to Ken Chen for directing my attention to Lu T’ung.
  2. Emily Dickinson, in Collected Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little Brown & Co.: 1960), #415.3
  3. Virginia Woolf, “The Sun and the Fish,” in Leonard Woolf, ed., Collected Essays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1966–1976), vol. 4, pp. 519–524.
  4. Dickinson, op. cit., #415.8.
  5. Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters (New York: Harper Perennial, 1999), p. 91.
  6. Ibid., p. 89.
  7. Herodotus, History, 1.74.
  8. Archilochos, in M. L. West, ed., Iambi Et Elegi Graeci, vol. 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), fr. 74.1–4.
  9. Pindar, “Paeans,” in H. Maehler, ed., Pindar Carmima Cum Fragmentis, vol. 2 (Leipzig: Teubner, 1980), 9.1–5.
  10. Virginia Woolf, in. Anne Olivier Bell, ed., The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 3 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1980), p. 142.

Anne Carson is a professor in the departments of Classical Studies, Comparative Literature, and English at the University of Michigan. She is also a poet and translator. Recent books include Men in the Off Hours (2001), The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos (2002), and If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (2003).

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